Shoelaces and Leadership


Can tying a shoelace have anything to do with leadership?

Or becoming a better speaker? Oh yes! And in so many ways…

I just came home from a two day leadership training in Antwerp, Belgium. Hundreds of coaches, speakers and trainers of the John Maxwell Team came together to learn and grow in our common field of passion – leadership. Listening to one of the very best. What a joy!

During the second day, something happened. Something that, for me, was in its basic principle nothing more than acting out my DNA as a mother. Caring for people in general, but in this particular situation: caring about one of my favorite role models; John C. Maxwell, who happens to be the Number ONE most influential speaker in the world, and, my mentor.

What happened was this; I had very intentionally made my way to the front of the conference room and was seated RIGHT in front of John for a full day or leadership training. He was seated on a high chair with a wiggly table on a stage that was constructed of wooden boxes placed upside down. Not the most flat surface to move around on. Having seen him live before, and having watched hours and hours of John delivering speeches, I know he’s not exactly smooth as a ballerina, and has a special gift for making water bottles fall over and note stands break.

John spends most of the time delivering a speech and a teaching sitting down. But every now and then, he stands up and moves around on the stage to increase the connection with the audience.

Right after he started speaking I realized his shoelace was open and dangling on each side of his right foot. I lost concentration of what he was saying as I could only hear my own words “sit, sit… sit, good boy, sit down, stay seated, sit…”, feeling like a dog trainer. I knew he was going to stand sooner or later.

Earlier that morning I had been on that stage for a quick selfie, and knew how unstable it was to walk on. My mind had already gone through the whole scenario of John’s potential stumble and fall. Everyone who’s watched John knows that he is very relaxed in his presentation, and likes to keep one or both hands in his pocket. Imagine stumbling and falling off a stage, with your hands in your pockets, hitting a carpeted concrete floor – with an audience of several hundreds of people watching. Not a nice vision. And definitely not a nice fall to experience. I did NOT want that to happen.

Apart from the embarrassment and discomfort of falling in front of all of us, the potential serious injury had me sitting on the edge of my chair, waiting for John to stand up and walk. I had considered miming to him and pointing at his shoelace to notify him, but knew that this would not be a very glamorous moment for him to try and fold himself in two to reach his foot. I’ve helped a former boss of age 64, and my mother for the past 10 years, to tie shoelaces and even putting socks on. It’s simply not an easy trick to pull of fast and easy, on a stage with an audience of hundreds, when you’ve reached a mature age. So, I was going to fix it for him. Fast and easy! And possibly save him from a broken arm or knocked out teeth.

The moment came. The Maxwell Man was up and walking. I got into ninja-mode, crouched down and rolled in to get to his foot. I didn’t ask permission. I didn’t interrupt him. I just said loud enough for only him to hear “please keep talking” as I started tying his shoelace, so the show could go on.

Annica Törneryd tying John Maxwell's shoelaces

Servant leadership; allow your leader to keep leading by helping them deliver a top performance – without tripping over their untied shoelaces!

He didn’t keep talking. He stopped his teaching. Cooperatively held his foot still, just like my children do when I tie their shoes in the morning before school. Both hands in his pockets. Looked down and patiently waited as I did my fastest ever shoelace tying, with a double knot to avoid it from happening again. As I was ready to move out and slide back into my seat, John said “can you please do a double knot on the other one as well”.

While I was kneeling to tie the shoes, I said to him: – I was worried about having to do CPR if you fall.

He thanked me and I was back in my seat a few seconds later. Ready to continue.

Then he resumed his talking, and started by saying:

She said “I realized I’d have to catch you if you fall“.

Can you imagine the scene? It is hilarious. Imagine trying to catch a tall, full grown man, who’s been enjoying a lot of European food lately, as he falls off a stage, adding the fact that I was wearing heals and a streamlined dress (not my best ninja dress). I already shared what I actually said, and I had no intent of being funny, I was just tying shoelaces.

For the first time, I have now experienced a live example of how John combines his sense of humor and super skill in creating great stories in the blink of an eye. He tweaked my words and turned them into something that is much more entertaining for the audience.

It doesn’t take anything away from the fact that someone tied his shoes, but it makes the overall incident turn into pure entertainment. John’s instant tweaking of words showed me the importance of selecting the right words, to make the most of a presentation and creating an entertaining experience for the audience. Always think of how your story is perceived by the people listening.

What an inspiration. What a powerful demonstration! Just slightly annoyed by the fact that he is funnier than I am.

Another powerful experience that came from the shoelace incident, is people’s reactions to it.

What has tying shoelaces got to do with leadership? Well, in all honesty, had it been the shoelaces of someone “less important”, it would have been nothing. I tie other people’s shoes every morning (like many parents), but have never written an article about it and no one ever took photos of it and posted on Facebook! I’m not saying my children aren’t important, but, they’re not John Maxwell. And it’s not on a stage in front of hundreds of people.

For me, it was a necessary and practical solution to a potential hazard that would bring, at the very least, pretty intense discomfort for most of the people in the room. And that’s it. Nothing more. Nothing less. I would have, and have already done so in the past, tied the shoelace of ANY person being on that stage.

Thinking about what I’ve learned about leadership from John’s international bestseller “The 21 Irrefutable Laws of Leadership”, here are some thoughts:

The Law of Magnetism: Good character improves every aspect of a person’s life. Having the mindset of John F. Kennedy who said “ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country”, but replacing country with the appropriate word depending on the situation. In this case my mentor. Being a servant leader goes a long way.

The Law of Connection: Back home in the Luxembourgish village, I have already tied my own shoes about 6 times. Each time it made me think of the incident described in this article. And yes, of course it has made me wonder if John also thought about it. Perhaps with everything that happens in his busy life, travelling, the American election coming up, jet lag etc., it is gone and he doesn’t remember. But I’m sure I’m not the only one who’s thought or talked about it in one way or another. What I’m saying is, connecting with someone, or several people, can come from the smallest of actions. And connecting is always good. Dare to be the initiator!

The Law of the Inner Circle: No leader does everything perfectly well. John for example, openly shares that he is not an ace at managing his wardrobe and tending to attire details. When travelling without Margaret, his wife, perhaps he appreciates a little help with those details. I’m not saying that waiting for shoelaces to untie is a strategy to become part of someone’s inner circle. I’m just saying that part of being a good leader is supporting a leader who is “superior” to yourself, by helping them maintain a high level of performance.

The Law of Empowerment: Only secure leaders give power to others. During a break I asked a new friend and fellow coach “what has made most of an impression on you today”. I was expecting to hear one of the many brilliant teachings I had written down myself, but he said “I was wondering why I didn’t do what you did…”. He was talking about the shoelace. I was very surprised to hear this, and asked if he knew why. After a short moment he said “yes, it’s because of pride, as a man I didn’t want to kneel down in front of another man”. We both stood in silence and took in his words. We locked eyes and knew without speaking that he wanted to do it, and that next time, pride will not stop him from doing what he feels is the right thing to do. Regardless of if, and how, people, including himself, will judge him. Giving power to someone else does not have to take power away from oneself. “If leaders want to be successful, they have to be willing to empower others”.

People’s opinion of us has less to do with what they see in us than it does with what we can help them see in themselves.” Let go of some of that pride and ego, and lead the way.

The Law of the Picture: “Your walk talks and your talk talks, but your walk talks louder than your talk talks.” Ed DeCosta said this on a mentorship call a few weeks ago. I love it! It means that by being a role model, and doing what you think will inspire others to be and do their best, actions speak louder than words. The situation where I apply this more than anywhere else, at this point in my life, is as a parent. Monkey do what monkey see, right! As a mama-monkey, I try to walk the talk as often as possible, to inspire my little ones to grow up to be great leaders.

“Dear God, please let my children forget the moments where I actually sound like a real monkey, screaming about hurrying up with tying shoelaces in the morning.”

When you feel that something is right; do it. If you know that it’s the right thing to do, according to your values, then do it. Don’t care about what others will say, think and do about it. Even if you know that some will be jealous, some will make hurtful comments, some will make comments that are flattering, some will treat you differently because of what you did and some will want to connect with you – just because. As long as you know within you that it is in alignment with your values, then own your space and walk your talk!

I am still amazed at the reactions to all this. And one thing about leadership has become very clear; there is an opportunity to make the right choice and LEAD, either yourself or your followers, in every situation, all through the day, every day.

We always have the opportunity to add value and show respect to our fellowmen. Don’t neglect the little things, such as holding a door, extending a smile – or – tying a shoelace!

Be all you can be.

Annica Törneryd

Founder of ACT2exceed



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